Stone Basin

Stone Basin
at Ryo An Jin

Monday, May 28, 2007

End of Tea Trip

In the evening after touring and learning about Mr. Saito's organic tea farm, Seb and I retired to Mishima, and walked around the only town in Japan where the hedges are not perfectly trimmed. The Bronx of Japan, I said. Nonetheless, the local Shinto Shrine was beautifully gilded golden and full of detailed carvings of nature. I left Seb to visit with his friends and returned on an almost 20 hour trip back to the U.S. It will be a long way to go before our customers can experience and appreciate all those wonderful teas from these unique, almost one of a kind craftspeople around Asia. But in any case, we travel endlessly to find them for everyone, so remember all of our blood, sweat, and tears (and forget all the good food we've had along the way)!!
I hope this explains why the teas are considered expensive. We are supporting innovative yet traditional farming techniques that do not strip the earth/sustainable, we are supporting small farmers whose pride and joy is their teas, we are supporting academics at research institutes who develop new varietals that are more disease and pest resistant, and most of all, we are searching for good people to make good tea. At the same time, we are building our community of like minded tea professionals and sharing and exchanging information, so that the public can enjoy better and better quality teas, in turn supporting tea professionals like ourselves. Thanks for reading!

Last Day in Shizuoka

Got up early and took the bullet train to Shizuoka, about 2 hours away. The Shinkansen trains are so fast I am sure it's past the speed of sound. Sebastian and I just looked at each other and laughed hysterically. Our camcorders weren't fast enough to capture the train moving.
We were driven around by the head of the organic farmers' cooperative of which there are four farmers. There are each defined by a different terroir and source of water, which was of supreme importance. The farm we visited belonged to Mr. Saito, who has been growing tea for 37 years, and organic teas for 17. He is one of the pioneers that Slow Food Italy cited as an example of organic farming in Japan, which is certified by the JAS. Mr. Saito takes great care in re-fertilizing his fields using hay and other vegetation. What was fascinating to me though is the skin of the ino-shi-shi, a wild boar, put up as an example of boars who dared to ruin the fields again.
Mr. Saito has a moonshine room where he is experimenting with all kinds of fermented vegetables, including natto, for fertilization. He and his wife work their entire farm, and Mr. Hara, our translator, informed us that such tea craftspeople can not hope to survive in Japan without subsidy from the government, due to cheap Chinese tea imports.....

2 Days Before Last

Sebastian and I met up with Mr. Taniguchi who supplies us with some of the finest sencha and gyokuro in Uji. But first, we stopped at Ryo An Ji, one of the most famous Zen temples in Kyoto, mobbed by school kids and tourists. Nonetheless, the faultlessly perfect stone gardens and the moss carpetted gardens, not to mention the quintessential Japanese woodwork and beams made out of whole tree trunks, captivated Sebastian so much it was hard to leave. His father, apparently, had built quite a few Japanese teahouses in the East coast ( and Seb had some experience with the woodwork. His enthusiasm spilled over to me and we wandered around, bowled over by the experience.
Mr. Taniguchi made it a point to stop in at the farmer's cooperative teahouse first before going to the gardens. We must understand how to steep sencha and gyokuro the right way, or all the best leaves won't make a bit of difference. What was fascinating and new though was eating the fine gyokuro leaves as salad after steeping it 4 times. Add some ponzu sauce, which was yuzu/citrus vinegar plus soy sauce, and an incredibly delectible salad was served. Sencha was steeped at 50 degrees celsius, and Gyokuro was at 40 degrees.
The Gyokuro plantations were either traditionally shaded by hay, which required ALOT more work, but gave it a softer sunlight shading (90% of light shaded out), vs. the new black plastic tarp like overhangs. The obasans were picking tea when we arrived, chatting away like women tea pickers in China or Taiwan. They were all cute, short, and about 80 years old. Sebastian's head almost hit the tarp roof.
Onward to see lots of gyokuro processing and meet Mr. Shimooka, who has won more top awards for his teas than there are kanji. The machines were complicated and precise, but no matter. For Mr. Shimooka, it is the care he puts into feeding his plants. For example, for the Gyokuro tofu meal is used for fertilizer, and instead of using pesticide, they use bug pheromones, which makes males think they are supposed to be looking to mate with female bugs, not eating the leaves. Or something like that. And then they die shortly after their mating cycle, which doesn't actually happen.
The Uji teas have a very specific, local taste of soybeans. As Japan teas have all originated from Uji (Only 7 families own the right to grow tea in the past), its taste was the standard by which sencha and gyokuro was judged. These were the teas that lower classes were allowed to drink as matcha was reserved for the upper classes only.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

3 Days Before Last Day

Uji At Koyama En
Koyama En is one of the most highly regarded tea companies in Japan, specializing in matcha. They are not only award winning, they don't have enough supply to meet demand in Japan alone. We were told to sell more ice cream grade matcha. Sebastian and I looked at each other and thought, OK, who should we sell to, the local gelato shop? NO, we want good matcha! Alas, who appreciates good matcha in America? Better not embarrass ourselves.

Sebastian arrived from Bhutan, looking quite rested. The next day found ourselves thick in the pouring Uji rain, as we met Soren at the Manpukuji temple, founded by Chinese Zen monks who escaped the regime change in China and brought whole leaf teas to Japan with them in the Ching Dynasty. This started the consumption of tea in the lower classes in Japan, and later on, sencha was discovered.

Koyama En was started by two brothers, and now mainly run by two of the sons of one of the Mr. Koyamas. The older uncle is an expert in the stone milling of the matcha, and as a result, stays on, happily it seems, to consult and monitor whether the mills are cut correctly, modifications needed, etc. It was quite a long, meticulous and generous sharing of his expertise which neither the translator nor myself, for sure, was able to understand much. However, seeing a room full of 320 such mills processing about 40gms each hour was amazing, though their demand exceeds supply at this point. Matcha is at least a 600 year plus tradition but seeing it all mechanized and efficient (you know those Japanese....) was strangely moving. I know this doesn't sound like much of a post, but since Koyama En was kind enough to allow me to photograph and obtain information generally not available to the public, you will all have to wait until I get permission to post further information about their inner workings.....

The Hoji Cha Ice Cream was worth the entire trip to Japan, and I had some knock out food there. Maybe we'll stop selling tea and focus on tea i su ku-ri-mu....

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Day 21 Nijo Castle

Last bit of tourism after some business, and the next few days will be at Uji tea farms. Whew! Ready to get out of the city.
Nijo Castle has by far the most tourists. Built in the 1600's by the first Tokugawa Shogun, it was the epitome of Shogunate power and the very halls and paintings reflect the hidden gleam of the swords. Or maybe I have just watched way too many samurai movies in my life, as well as historical epics about Ieyasu, Yoshinobu, etc. The flooring of the main halls where the feudal lords were received was called the nightingale walk, which meant that the floors creaked loudly on purpose, so even lightfooted ninjas can not sneak up without warning. Guess I shouldn't change out my squeaky wooden floors at home then. The palace had a moat, as palaces should, and even the garden lacked relaxation or glamour. Nijo Castle felt extremely functional and powerful, far from the floating world of Gion and Geishas, far from the serene Zen temple gardens. This was a place where they anticipated assasinations and katanas crossing at any moment, not the glamourous incense filled red and gold luxurious rooms of the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. The emperors there seem lazy compared to the Shoguns! Indeed, Kyoto, as an ancient capitol, feels classier and less snobby than Beijing. And stronger, less precarious, and for god's sake, it's not in a sand bowl next to the Great Wall! And they drink the very best tea in Japan, Uji Sencha, unlike Jasmine tea in Beijing. Have I already mentioned this part about Jasmine tea in Beijing? I thought I'd mention it again as it is unforgivable.

Day 20 Urasenke

Urasenke, one of the two main schools of tea ceremony, or chanoyu, is located in the northern part of Kyoto, and there is a school and a museum in a temple area (but everywhere is temple area) surrounded by other Chanoyu type shops. Managed to find some great chawans. I didn't go inside the Urasenke school, because out came a line of perfectly made up young women in perfect kimono. There was something extremely scary about that sight, so I turned and ran. It brought back memories of sitting through chanoyu for an infernal amount of time, worse than the Bardo it seemed, while the hostesses, women with make up as thick as the brocade on their kimonos, appraised you with knitted brows should you even blink the wrong way.
I thought the matcha I had at Soren Sensei's place was brilliant, an extremely satisfying bowl, and an even more revelation, that chanoyu doesn't have to be long, or boring, or conducted by housewives.

Everywhere I went, if I kept the conversations very short, the shop owners do not catch on that I am not Nihonjin/Japanese. However, things fall apart when they ask me anything beyond if I want a bag with my purchase or is this a gift. They ask where I am from. I said the U.S., which is where I am FROM. But then they'll say, your face is Japanese or Chinese. So I'll say, the next time, I am Chinese. This produces some cold shoulders from the normally faultlessly polite Kyoto folks. One day, someone asked, China's big, where in China are you from? I then said, Hong Kong. Instantly, the man smiled, relaxed, and said, Hong Kong is not really China! It seems that the more close the ethnic groups are, the more they discriminate against each other. In some parts of the world, they are currently at war over it. Such nuanced parsing. I should just say I am from Berkeley-NY-Hong Kong-Hainan-Canton, in the sequence of where I have lived.

Did manage to go into the Urasenke museum, exhibiting some truly beautiful wabi sabi chawans and everything attendent. Even enjoyed a gold leafed mochi and some matcha on the house. Quickly took a picture of the classroom, where I can use to point out yet AGAIN that tetsubin cast iron pots are for HOTWATER (see how they sit on the burner) and not for making tea. This picture being from Urasenke headquarters, folks, I hope this is enough proof. Japanese green teas must be prepared at the exact temperatures in pottery, as they are even more fussy than China greens. The thought that Americans would pour boiling hot water into a cast iron teapot into a little metal basket of not enough tea leaves just churns our stomachs. I didn't tell the tea professionals in Kyoto about this part.

Enjoyed some really silky, ethereal yudofu for lunch. Tofu served either grilled, made with sesame, in hotwater served with sichimi, or as ground tofu soup. Delicious. I feel quite happy that at the very least, I eat extremely well here. At least one good meal a day. The rest are on the road at the 7 eleven, but the musubi are quite good enough.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Day 19 A Day in the Life

I am ready to leave Kyoto. It's really hard to stay at a place where everything is so perfect. It's perfect not in the way that Singapore is perfect, mind you. It's just perfect in the way I value things. If I stay longer, I might just live here permanently. To make matters worse, I feel perfectly comfortable with all aspects of life, from the transportation, to the streets and how they are laid out, to the way people are, to the food and tea, of course, which is of supreme importance. People even bike around, with cotton masks. There is virtually no pollution, though the tap water isn't great. There are Buddhist temples everywhere, old houses, little alleys, small stores, and craftsmen proudly specializing in their crafts for centuries. Now there are many Starbucks, but who cares, you can get Musubi Rice Balls at the 7 Eleven. I just lament the fact that I am unsuited to live outside of Asia. And I have had more wagashi and mochi to be decent. No, I can't bring myself to admit it quite yet. I will need a support group first.

Early in the morning, I headed out to Daitokuji, where I was asked to get some natto. I had always wanted to visit this temple anyway, and hopefully there will be fewer tourists. But Zuiho-in was mostly where I ended up, one of the sub monasteries with the most interesting sand garden ever. The coarse sand has been raked to reflect a turbulent ocean, the turbulent ocean of our minds. Even the rocks that represented the miniature mountains are odd, pointed, and jutting out in different directions, a garden of immense discord and disharmony, though at first sight, it sure looked Zen and serene. It was odd to sit and reflect at this particular garden, but effectively, it quieted my mind quickly somehow. Maybe it was the reminder that our minds are so busy and unnecessarily bumpy. Sometimes, as soon as you are present in the moment and reminded of where your state of mind is, it quickly dissipates.
But what was in store, even better than the Zen mind, is the Zen vegetarian temple food. The little teahouse restaurant on the temple grounds served kaiseki lunch, including a bowl of natto, yuba, tofu, wonderful soup, a variety of other dishes, and a bowl of matcha as well as plum wine. I made peace with the natto today. It will never show up on my top three foods to puke with again, namely, Durian, Stinky Tofu, and Salty Fish. After hanging out in Central Hong Kong in 100 degree weather and wafts of Salty Fish festering in the heat attacked me, it has definitely replaced natto, which, Kyoto style, is quite good!
The kaiseki lunch was beyond satisfying! Zen priests sure live a good life.

Ryuoen teashop proved to be quite impressive. Their Shin Cha just blew the lid off of Ippodo, making them look like a Starbucks. Of course, I make it my business to visit teashops everywhere in the world. But Ryuoen must be undemonstratively one of the best. And they made their teas at such perfect lukewarm temperatures. Everywhere I went, I just had to ask if anyone uses tetsubins for tea making. Most of them were shocked, some laughed as if I was joking, and then some solemnly informed me that it is FOR HOTWATER only. Americans, please take note of this fact, which I did not make up. No one in Japan uses tetsubin/iron teapots for making tea. But don't take my word for it. I went all over Kyoto asking all the local tea professionals for YOUR erudition, not mine.

Walked all the way in a very hot day to a very obscure little street for a very long time, just to get some tofu from Iriyama, an old tofu shop. So I cooked dinner, something I haven't done for over a year, just so I can enjoy this freshly made fried tofu. It was worth the blood, sweat, and tears. Well, just the sweat. I need to move this tofu shop to Berkeley.